The Faceless ‘They’
By Berqi from Asmara
I say we are proving ourselves not fully capable of hitting the nail on the head. May be we were so from the get go. It could be a cultural thing or possibly the politico-military air we have ever breathed in Eritrea that has turned us into a nation of opaque questioners and answers. What’s more? We, at least my generation of the new youth of Eritrea, have now become almost unable not only to know what we need, but also what we want and even at times what to feel. We haven’t been able to clearly identify the exact person or thing to blame for our misfortunes and, worse, how to make our way out of the mess that has been hovering over the Eritrean clouds for more than a decade now.
A reflection of this confusion is what I have long observed from the scores upon scores of talks and writings about the system reigning in Eritrea. It is about “they” or “them” or “these”, best described by the Tigrigna ’ezi’om. There was a jock circulating in the bars and snacks of Asmara during the days of the now-deceased Wedi Gebeya who made a name for himself for creating jokes with political satire. He was used by many a joke cracker as a cover for creating such jokes too. I hope someone has collected or is collecting his jokes for distribution in print form like Ye’abyotu Qeldoch which contained such jokes of the Derg era. Anyways, there is this joke attributed to Wedi Gebeya. It is said that Wedi Gebeya was on a crammed minibus carrying passengers from Maytemenay to downtown Asmara. He was astonished by the unusual silence in the minibus and loudly said: “you guys look silent when I see you from the outside, but if I open every one of your skulls, there is a big ’ezi’om written over your brains!” A conscious laughter followed. Wedi Gebeya was right. Everybody talks and thinks about ’ezi’om. Who are ’ezi’om? What do they do? Where is their office? How many are they? Are we part of them?
Were we to have an Eritrea-centric dictionary, ’ezi’om would be defined as ‘the unidentified group of people who are the cause of every mess in Eritrea’. Every grumble ends with the note that there will be no solution as long as ’ezi’om are around. So far, no Eritrean has claimed to have met ’ezi’om for either (a) they work in extreme secrecy, (b) they do not exist at all, or (c) we are ’ezi’om. I guess most of the reference to ’ezi’om leads to some powerful persons either in the PFDJ headquarters, the office of the president or the security apparatus. Definitely the president, as the most powerful man in the country, is always made to be one of them. According to who is telling the story, ’ezi’om could also be ministers, director generals, the military or administrators. I may also have been named as ’ezi’om or you the reader. The funniest of all conversations is when people tell you that an administrator, a minister, a general or even a member of the security has blamed ’ezi’om. There are many instances of these.
I don’t know if the designation ’ezi’om started with the pseudo-collective thinking that has developed during the meda era. We grew up giving flesh to Hzbawi Gnbar. I am too young to say if it is also true about Jebha. Every good and bad was attributed to Shaebia. Shaebia did this and that, the gebar always said and heard. When Shaebia came back home and started to live with the gebar, in the post-1991 Eritrea someone had to become what Shaebia was before 1991. Thus was created ’ezi’om.
’ezi’om were initially praised and enthroned by the Eritrean mass. ’ezi’om were going to show the world what a mighty people Eritreans are; ’ezi’om were going to transform Eritrea into Singapore; ’ezi’om were going to be the wonder of Africa; ’ezi’om were admired – and even feared by the French in Djibouti and the US. Many a myth, as during the meda era, was hatched in households in Eritrea and wherever Eritreans lived. As the years counted, the mass of tegadalay started to retire from being ’ezi’om because the name of the game is ’ezi’om has to be invisible and many a tegadalay was easily available in households and bars. Gradually the mass of tegadalay – who, I believe, always thought he (she) was different from the gebar – joined the mass and started to talk about ’ezi’om.
It is both good and bad to be a member of ’ezi’om. Up until Eritrea’s downhill march which started towards the end of the 1990s or early 2000s, ’ezi’om was the wonder-group that everybody wanted to be assimilated to. Highly educated Eritreans, taken by the admiration of ’ezi’om, queued up to be around, and noticed by, ’ezi’om. It is hypocrisy on their part and their similar to mercilessly disparage ’ezi’om now before admitting their self-blindness about ’ezi’om yesterday. Their earlier writings and publications are there for every one of us to see. No need to mention the intoxication of the unenlightened mass, continuing to this day in some of them. When things started to take bad shape in Eritrea, the enlightened and unenlightened alike started to blame ’ezi’om for the doom and gloom. Fast-forward to 2012 and we now have generals, ministers and security officers blaming ’ezi’om. Sometimes I wonder who will be blamed for our misfortunes if our ’ezi’om are gone. At the existing rate, a new ’ezi’om will have to be anointed for the post-shaebia problems.
We are a people who like to narrate events from the perspective of personalities. Someone must be praised or blamed for every event we discuss whether we identify him or not. It has now become very rare to see idea-based discussions both among Eritreans, whether in cyberspace and in meetings. A lot could be written about this. Who-based perspective has many problems. First, the discussion, devoid of how and why, becomes short and boring and less intelligent. Second, the listener becomes judgmental. Third, the person who is the subject of the discussion, not those who talk about him, controls the story. If the story is something good, those who talk about the person are led to conclude that the person should stay around because if he is gone, the good will go away with him. Remember the fear of the diehard supporters of the government about the Eritrean president gone. Similarly, if the story is something bad, those who talk about the person are led to conclude that the person should be removed otherwise the bad will stay with him. Fourth, it makes a great backstabber out of you. Finally, you end up being full of prejudices and preconceived conclusions; whatever analysis you are invited to make is used only to justify that your ‘who’ is the only reason why something happened. As the English writer-turned-British-prime minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “Little things affect little minds” and Eleanor Roosevelt added, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
The mentioning of ’ezi’om is part of this tradition. In fact we know that our ’ezi’om, being part of us, also have their ’ezi’om too (colonialism – even those that were long gone before shaebia was conceived – the Derg, Weyane, NGOs, and of course the CIA). Very recently, our ’ezi’om have baptized a new ’ezi’om of theirs and they are loving it. These are called Special Interest Groups (seb fluy rebHa as they are called here). I guess the books and documentary films on the semi-secret group which controls the banking and military-industrial complex empires have started to come in mass to the houses and offices of our ’ezi’om since a year or two. At least in the West, the knowledge about this group has been on the streets for many years. Here, it is the new revelation in the Eritrean mass-media as our analysts lecture on us about these newly founded ’ezi’om. What’s not clear to me (if I have to be modest) or ridiculous (if I have to call it by what it should be called) is how and why our ’ezi’om thinks the Special Interest Group is related to Eritrea. In the US, the heartland of the Special Interest Group, Obama has reached a stage where he loses support every time he blames his ’ezi’om (Bush & Co.) for the mess he says he has inherited. ‘What solution do you have for it?’ is the question that stares at him from the unhappy mass. To take a neighbor’s example, if there is one good deed that, from my point of view, stands very tall in the legacies of the late prime minister of Ethiopia, it is the fact that his actions – and ETV’s broadcasts are testimony to this – were not at all times based on blaming ‘those’ (the Derg that is), but on ideas of development that somehow did away with the legacies of those.
So should it be for us Eritreans. I acknowledge that recently, ’ezi’om is evolving into ’ezi or nsu, Isaias Afwerki that is. Call it bad luck, our unfathomable ignorance, Isaias’ cunningness or a very complicated conspiracy – as I have read in some articles on the Eritrean websites – we are in a hellhole. Whether it is nsu or ’ezi’om, let’s first examine ourselves if we are part of ’ezi’om, very remote as it may be. If we still stick to our who-based perspective, let us inquire who actually our problem is. Those of us who listen to someone talking about ’ezi’om, let us confront him by asking who his ’ezi’om are. Don’t let him avoid dissection. From the modern human point of view, let us also be reminded that blaming others for one’s problem is the last line of defense. Even if we finally identify who ’ezi’om are, are we still sure that all our problems come from ’ezi’om?
How about we do more of kemey (how) and slemntay (why) and less of men (who) and ’ezi’om?